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«STRUCTURE AND EXPERIENCE IN THE MAKING OFAPARTHEID 6-10 February 1990 AUTHOR: Iain Edwards and Tim Nuttall TITLE: Seizing the moment : the January ...»

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6-10 February 1990

AUTHOR: Iain Edwards and Tim Nuttall

TITLE: Seizing the moment : the January 1949 riots, proletarian

populism and the structures of African urban life in

Durban during the late 1940's



In January 1949 Durban experienced a weekend of public violence in which 142 people died and at least 1 087 were injured. Mobs of Africans rampaged through areas within the city attacking Indians and looting and destroying Indian-owned property. During the conflict 87 Africans, SO Indians, one white and four 'unidentified' people died. One factory, 58 stores and 247 dwellings were destroyed; two factories, 652 stores and 1 285 dwellings were damaged.1 What caused the violence? Why did it take an apparently racial form? What was the role of the state?

There were those who made political mileage from the riots. Others grappled with the tragedy. The government commission of enquiry appointed to examine the causes of the violence concluded that there had been 'race riots'. A contradictory argument was made.

The riots arose from primordial antagonism between Africans and Indians. Yet the state could not bear responsibility as the outbreak of the riots was 'unforeseen.' It was believed that a neutral state had intervened to restore control and keep the combatants apart.2 The apartheid state drew ideological ammunition from the riots. The 1950 Group Areas Act, in particular, was justified as necessary to prevent future endemic conflict between 'races'. For municipal officials the riots justified the future destruction of African shantytowns and the rezoning of Indian residential and trading property for use by whites.

Advocates of the emerging multi-racial political alliance between the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Indian Congress (SAIC) realized the deep damage the riots meant for their cause. Not only was the conflict between Indians and Africans, but it had erupted just as plans were being made for mass black action against the state.

For the Congresses the riots were fuelled by the depressed socio-economic circumstances in which black people lived, and by the racially discriminatory policies of the state.3 The same point was made by leading Durban liberals.4 Some political leaders went further than sketching in the broader circumstances. The Natal Indian Organization (NIO) was the only black political body publicly to state the widely held worry that the riots were organized. Others avoided this sensitive question. Causal links were drawn between the riots and perceived inadequacies within local black political organizations. Local members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) members attributed the riots to the anti-Indianism of Durban ANC leaders such as George Champion, and to the illegitimacy of such leaders in the eyes of the African proletariat. Through Champion's machinations the African masses had no political home.9 Moses Kotane, privately at least, saw the riots as an indictment of political leadership in general.' At issue here were the crucial questions of differing strategies and the political distance between formal organizations and the masses. Although sensing the importance of such questions,

1. Union of South Africa, Report of the Commission of Enquiry into Riots in Durban. UG 36-49 (hereafter cited as Riots Commission Report 1949V p.5. The injured were listed as 541 Africans, 503 Indians, 32 whites and 11 coloureds.

2. Riot Commission Report 1949. pp.6, 21-22.

3. T. Karis and G.M. Carter, From Protest to Challenge. Vol.2 (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1973), pp.285-88.

4. M. Webb, The Riots and After" and K Kirkwood, 'Failure of a Report' in Race Relations 16, 4 (1949) pp.85-106.

5. Interview with Mr R Arenstein, 29 May 1985.

6. Interview with Mrs J Arenstein, 18 July 1985.

the problem of the riots was never fully addressed.

The riots of 1949 have cast a long shadow. Chief Buthelezi has often implied a 'repeat of 1949' in his calls for Zulu-led black unity, in his demands for legitimate 'Zulu' aspirations, and in his castigation of Indian meddling in African politics.7 For many in Natal the killing of Indians and destruction of Indian property in Inanda during 1985 seemed to fulfil such warnings.' In the current Natal violence the African-Indian idiom has taken on many meanings. For example, lindelani squatters have recently characterized the African township dwellers of neighbouring Ntuzuma as 'Indians'. This racial language signifies squatter perceptions of the better living conditions in Ntuzuma, and it helps justify violent attacks from lindelani on the adjacent township.9 The questions of 1949 were raised afresh at the national level by the tri-cameral elections and the country-wide revolt of the mid 1980s. At stake was the nature of black political alliances amidst evident grassroots militancy, at a time when a defensive state sought to legitimate itself through ambiguous reform policies.

Given the profound political impact and continued relevance of the riots it is surprising that they have not received more academic attention. A handful of studies have simply treated the riots as an 'event', doing little more than describe what happened.10 By contrast Meer, Kuper and Webster have put forward many suggestive perspectives, some of which were developed a long time ago." Writing twenty years after the riots, Meer stressed two main themes: the role of the state ind the appropriateness of the interracial alliance politics of the later 1940s. For Meer the search for the role of the state remained as central as it had been for congress politicians immediately after the riots.

But Meer developed a virtually conspiratorial view of the state's role." Whites manipulated African frustrations for uniquely white goals. This perspective draws on 'common sense' memories which have survived to this day. During the riots whites painted themselves black and led attacks on Indians.13 White madams gave their

7. R. Southall, 'Buthelezi, Inkatha and the Politics of Compromise', African Affairs 80 (1981); G. Mare and G. Hamilton, An Appetite for Power (Johannesburg, 1987), p.152.

8. A. Sitas, 'Inanda, August 1985: "Where Wealth and Power and Blood Reign Worshipped Gods"1, South African Labour Bulletin 11, 4 (1986), p.109.

9. South 20 December 1989.

10. S.L. Kirk, The 1949 Durban Riots: A Community in Conflict', MA thesis, University of Natal, Durban, 1983; L.K. Ladlau, The January 1949 Riots', BA Honours essay, University of Natal, Durban, 1974; S.B. Maraj, 'Faces of a Dark Tragedy: the 1949 Durban Riots', BA Honours essay, University of DurbanWestville, 1985.

11. F. Meer, Portrait of Indian South Africans (Durban: Avon House, 1969); F. Meer, 'African Nationalism - Some Inhibiting Factors', in H. Adam (ed.) South Africa:

Sociological Perspectives (London: O.U.P., 1971); L. Kuper, An African Bourgeoisie (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1965); E. Webster, "The 1949 Durban Riots - A Case Study in Race and Class' in P. Bonner (ed.), Working Papers in Southern African Studies (Johannesburg, African Studies Institute, 1978).

12. Meer, Portrait, p.36.

13. Interview with Mr S S L Mtolo, 10 June 1983.

'cookboys' time off to join the fight.'4 White observers shouted: 'I am all for the coons, whatever they do to the bloody coolies.'" Such often factually correct memories offered grist to the mill of those searching for the role of the state and the nature of white racism.

Meer's second concern was the way the riots highlighted the failings of the black alliance politics of the period. The later 1940s seemed to offer so much politically, yet the riots cut right across attempts to build mass-based organizational unity against the apartheid

state. In a particularly trenchant critique of these attempts Meer wrote:

African nationalism became confused with racialism and African leaders were prematurely pushed by non-African democrats into making a choice between... international humanism and... parochial nationalism based on the idea that each group has its own permanently distinct historical tradition.... The new generation [of African] leaders were never given an opportunity to work out their own intermediate nationalism and through it to reach out to... other groups.... There was a premature insistence on international, inter-racial cooperation - a superficial sharing of platforms and a disproportionate representation of non-African democrats on bodies which planned essentially African political action... at a stage when many real and very large chasms existed between the life chances of Africans and those of the other 'races' to whom Africans were expected to extend equality in the future."

This reveals a keen sense of the politics of the period, but Meer's analysis of the riots is fundamentally flawed by a simplified notion of the state " and through her characterization of the African participants as 'disembodied


thing[s]\" In a seminal earlier study of Durban's African bourgeoisie, Kuper highlighted the role of the nascent African trading class in the politics of the late 1940s." Kuper saw clearly how African traders had expanded their operations immediately after the riots, but failed to see wider entrepreneurial activities, their social origins and how these interests led into the riots. Kuper focused merely on leadership and not on supporters. Webster developed many of these themes in a path-breaking materialist analysis of the riots: an event which loomed large over the 'race-class' debate of the 1970s.20 Webster outlined the processes of racially differential incorporation into the structures of Durban society during the 1940s. Concerned with the interaction of structure, agency and mass behaviour, Webster lacked much crucial evidence. He correctly rejected the concept of

14. Interview with Mr B Nair, 27 June 1985.

15. R. St John, Through Malan's Africa (London, 1954), p.293.

16. Meer, 'African Nationalism', p. 132.

17. In analyzing the Inanda conflict of 1985 Meer again reached for a conspiratorial

view of the state. F. Meer (ed.) Institute for Black Research Special Report:

Unrest in Natal. August 1985 (Durban: Institute for Black Research, 1985). For an important criticism of this work, see H. Hughes, The August 1985 Violence in Inanda', Journal of Southern African Studies 13, 3 (1987).

18. Webster, 'Riots', p.22.

19. Kuper, African Bourgeoisie. Chapter 17.

20. Webster, 'Riots'.

'race riots', seeing instead an 'economically based class conflict with a profoundly racial dimension'.21 Webster stressed the partial and embryonic character of class formation during the period and isolated key actors and their motives within the riots, but noted that the whole area of popular politics required further research.

There is increasing recognition that South African historians have skirted the problems of ethnicity and racism amongst the oppressed and exploited.22 As ethnic mobilization and conflict assume a greater role worldwide, so there is a new awareness of the need to address these issues.23 The riots of January 1949 require revisiting.24 Yet the conflict must not be seen simply as a race riot, nor as a spontaneous or isolated event. The January 1949 riots must be viewed as an integral feature of African proletarian militancy during the late 1940s.B Such was hinted at by Hemson but in a way which suggested too stark a distinction between progressive worker politics, populism, the racial conflict of January 1949, and the possibility of a general strike in May 1949.* The riots grew from a diverse political experience with potentially different trajectories to that played out in January 1949. What did the riots reveal about the character of black politics in Durban during the late 1940s? What were the structures of power within the city? How did the imperatives of survival in an industrializing city both inform and constrain proletarian political practices? How did the proletariat perceive the power of the state and capital?

Did proletarian politics embrace notions of social transformation? What were the goals and how were they to be achieved? How did anti-Indianism relate to and form a part of the African proletariat's experience of survival and visions of transformation?


The period from the mid 1930s to the late 1940s was a time of rapid growth for Durban.

The local economy expanded and diversified, particularly in its industrial sectors.

Between 1936 and 1951 the census recorded a doubling of Durban's total population, from around a quarter of a million people to just under half a million. During this time the number of Africans in the city increased from 71 000 to 151 000, the figures for Indians rose from 89 000 to 161 000, and the total for whites climbed from 97 000 to 151 000.27 The local and central state responded indecisively to these dramatic developments, failing to provide for or control the growing population. During the late 1940s there was considerable public debate over just how post-war Durban society

21. Webster, 'Riots', pp. 30 and 48.

22. P. Bonner et al., Holding Their Ground (Johannesburg, 1989), p. 13.

23. S. Marks and S. Trapido (eds.), The Politics of Race. Class and Nationalism in Twentieth Century South Africa (London, 1987), p.35; C. Young, 'Ethnicity, Class and Nationalism in Africa', Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines 26, 3 (1986); L. Vail (ed.), The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa (London, 1989).

24. T.A. Nuttall, '"It Seems Like Peace But It Can Be War": The Durban "Riots" of 1949 and the Struggle for the City', paper to the South African Historical Society conference, Pietermaritzburg, 1989.

25. I.L. Edwards, 'Mkhumbane Our Home. A History of African Shantytown Society in Cato Manor Farm, 1946-1960', PhD, University of Natal, 1989.

26. D. Hemson, 'Dock Workers, Labour Circulation, and Class Struggles in Durban, 1940-1959', Journal of Southern African Studies 4, 2 (1978), p.107.

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